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The CBA negotiations have essentially ignored the on-field product

Other leagues have been able to meld labor talks with product changes. Why can’t baseball?

MLB: Lockout The Palm Beach Post-USA TODAY NETWORK

Opening Day has been cancelled, and fans are currently seeing a period of strategic retrenchment from both MLB and the players’ union. Assuming a very abbreviated spring training, we’re still at least a month and a half away from real baseball being played. There are very real economic issues driving a wedge between the two sides, with serious issues including minimum salary, CBT caps, and playoff money. With all the focus on the economics, baseball has lost a chance to not only have a normal season after two chaotic ones, but to afford themselves some reflection on what we all want the sport to look like.

This oversight, by the way, continues a trend that baseball has suffered from in recent history. Changes have been made to the game, but done so unilaterally and often anonymously – the irregular subbing in and out of baseballs with different levels of “juice,” so to speak, or the edict on sticky stuff. MLB made these changes without input from the players, and seemingly without a real consideration about what the right amount of “juice” should be.

Meanwhile, the 26th roster spot, shifting, increased reliever usage, and pitching changes are allowed to fluctuate purely on market forces, as teams have seen that it’s more valuable and efficient to have a starter throw four or five innings, then roll out four league-minimum relievers throwing 98 mph. All this is happening as team revenues become increasingly decoupled from actual performance – it’s financially worthwhile for the likes of Bob Nutting and Dick Monfort to have rudderless, directionless franchises in Pittsburgh and Colorado without much of a plan to turn them around beyond betting on prospects.

These are the competitive and aesthetic challenges to the game; they run perpendicular to the economic concerns, intersecting along lines, like where free agent pitchers earn less than they used to because of the increased workload of those major league-minimum relievers. Yet while all these issues do run together at certain points, they are still separate enough to merit discussion in the lockout… and haven’t been.

Were the two sides not so fundamentally split, this might be possible. In the 2004-05 NHL lockout, for example, discussions around the aesthetics of hockey were part of the negotiations just as much as the economics, and the new CBA included rule changes concerning offsides rules and goalie play, designed to end the trap system and encourage greater offensive risk-taking. During the last NFL lockout in 2011, both economic issues around free agency and the franchise tag were tackled (no pun intended) as well as new rules dealing with player safety and injury management.

Leagues and players can walk and chew gum at the same time — so why, then, are there so few aesthetic discussions in this CBA? Even as the two sides haggled in negotiations across quite a few meetings in the last week and a half, possible on-field changes were seemingly only debated late on the final day.

I think I’ve earned a reputation for being pro-labor in these discussions, but even I can’t pretend that the union is blameless here. Part of their mandate is to grow major league rosters, providing more MLB jobs to players, regardless of the role those players take on. Combining this strategy with owners’ desire for cheap, expendable parts, and you get this influx of young relievers earning the MLB minimum, exacerbating three-true-outcome ball and the near-dozen pitching changes that fans see in every game these days.

The union, or at least vocal members of it, have also pushed back on other pace of play concerns, like pitch clocks. The MLBPA should do all it can to guarantee itself a larger piece of MLB’s revenue pie, but that pie may start to shrink as aesthetic concerns tamp enthusiasm among casual fans.

Don’t get me wrong here; the blame for this lockout rests at the feet of ownership. Indeed, if they had seriously negotiated in December instead of sitting on their hands, if they had submitted good faith offers in January and February, both sides may have had the capacity to address the aesthetic and competitive issues that will plague the sport whenever it resumes.

I’m still going to watch baseball — I have a permanently open tab on my laptop for when a CBA deal is reached and I can resub to MLB.tv — and I don’t really believe when people say they’ll stop watching the sport because they’re tired of the “millionaires vs. billionaires” fight. I am, however, starting to believe the folks who say that the aesthetic of baseball has become a turnoff.

I said this in the comments yesterday, but it’s simply less fun to watch six late-blooming relievers pitch one inning each while inducing eight whiffs on 99 mph up and wipeout sliders down, and all earn the major league minimum. It makes sense, analytically, to deploy your players this way, and it makes sense economically since they earn so little. But it remains the fundamental problem with the on-field product, and because of how nonsensical these “negotiations” have been, they have not been addressed this winter in any meaningful way whatsoever.

We may end up with a new CBA sooner than we think — and one more fair than we think, as well — but that foundational on-field problem has shown no signs of going away.